As a student, I remember dreading group projects because, inevitably, the loudest, bossiest member of the group would take over and either do all the work on their own or tell everyone else what to do. Neither of these scenarios is optimal for students: either that student resents everyone for letting them do all the work and then taking the shared credit, or the rest of the group resents that student for taking away their agency. Full disclosure: I was 100% that student. #sorrynotsorry

As a teacher, I could spot that student in a group from a mile away, too. It’s in the exasperated, often comically resigned way they roll their eyes when you deliver the assignments; in the melodramatic, reluctant air with which they sigh and shrug their shoulders, like a newly-minted 40-year-old, and say to their group, “Ok, guys, let’s do this.” (It is also in this terrible moment that you see the mirror held up to nature and know yourself in that child, but enough about me…) But, as the instructor, what could I do? Part of learning is figuring out how to collaborate and problem-solve with your peers, right? I suffered through it; it’s only natural that they should, too, right? Right? 

Wrong. If you’ve been following our blog for a while, you know how strongly we advocate for the use of cue scripts in the classroom and the rehearsal room because of the amount of listening and collaboration they require from every person involved. Here at the American Shakespeare Center, we continually re-learn that lesson during our Actor’s Renaissance: when working with cue scripts, everyone has some information but no one has all of it, and that means that while there still might be a power vacuum (because we don’t use a director), it is not immediately clear who the “leader” could or should be. Using cue scripts to analyze or perform a scene provides a unique opportunity for students to reflect on how – and why – power is given to certain individuals within a group.

In lieu of a director, our ensemble often defers to the actor with the most lines in any given play to make major decisions and steer the storytelling. The reasoning seems solid at first glance: they have the biggest role, most of the decisions made will primarily affect them, therefore they should have the most sway in the collaborative process. However, the person with the largest role is also the most entrenched in rehearsals, rarely able to step out and be the “outside eye” – shaping the storytelling overall, keeping an eye on the big picture – that a director usually provides. On the other hand, another actor with a minor role is perfectly suited to observing others’ scenes and tracking the development of the story precisely because they have fewer on-stage responsibilities.

So the next time you feel the urge to assign a group project, consider using cue scripts. Here is one from Julius Caesar that we use frequently for ASC workshops – this one works really well as a “fishbowl” exercise because it uses roughly 15 students. This scene has you covered on two fronts: leadership is at the heart of the scene itself, and it offers the opportunity for students to observe the real-time development of leadership dynamics as they watch their peers work through the scene. If that’s not exactly what you’re looking for, here is a medium-sized, 4-5 person scene from Hamlet, and a 3-person from The Taming of the Shrew. Whichever scene size you choose, encourage your students to pause once in a while and examine the dynamics of their group and whether the way they are working serves the purposes of the scene. Is that student still taking over? My guess is, probably not – not because they don’t want to, but because they literally cannot. They might still roll their eyes at you, but secretly they’re relieved.